“I Don’t Get It”

December 1, 2007

Often (i.e. most days) I have conversations like this:

“What question are you on, Natalie?”
“I’m stuck.”

“What question are you stuck on?”
“All of them!”
“You can’t be stuck on all of them.”
“Yes I am. I don’t get any of it.”
“Well what question is it that you are having trouble with?”
“All of them”
“I’m not asking you to do all of them at once. Try doing them in order and tell me which one you are stuck on.”

“Question one.”
“There isn’t a question one.”
“Well, question A”
“What’s the problem with question A?”
“I don’t get it”
“What don’t you get about it?”
“All of it.”

“Well which bit?”
“All of it.”
“Even the first bit?”
“Well what does it say/”
”Copy and complete the table”
”Do you know what that means?”
“Have you done that?”

“Well can you do that, please. Then ask me for help if you’re stuck.”
(5 minutes later)
“Have you copied the table?”
“Are you stuck”
“No, this is easy.”

However, this entry isn’t really about the kids who don’t get it, it’s for teachers who don’t get it. There are teachers who are unaware of what’s happening in most schools. Some of them comment on my blog, some of them I see discussing issues on teacher forums, and occasionally I talk to such teachers in real life. Usually they have spent their careers exclusively in better than average schools (or alternatively in that peculiar state of denial which only members of SMT are capable of). They have a little difficulty understanding what teachers with tough classes are actually experiencing.

Here’s a few answers to the points they usually make:

Better classroom management would solve all the problems you mention. I’m a great believer in the importance of classroom management as a skill that can be developed. However, the “Fuck-Off-Factor” (the tendency for students to ignore all instructions and verbally abuse anyone who gives them), and “Terroring” (the intimidation of any teacher who attempts to bring about order in the classroom) provides a natural limit to what can be achieved through classroom management. Some of the schools I‘ve worked at have showed staff videos about behaviour management. The best of these showed Bill Rogers establishing routines in a class and enforcing rules in an non-confrontational way. It’s impossible to watch these without thinking: “How come none of the kids tell him to fuck off?”

My school has challenging students too: This point is usually followed by claims about the racial mix of their school, or descriptions of the poorest part of thei catchment area. However, non-white pupils, pupils from a deprived area, or even pupils from a deprived background do not make a school challenging. A school or a class is challenging if poor behaviour and no learning is normal. Background is only part of the equation and stereotypes about race or class can be quite misleading. Only the worst estates have no middle class people living on them, and most of the worst students are white, anyway. Inclusion has let some really extreme cases into good schools, but the question is always “what’s normal?” A school where all the worst behaved kids are recognised as nutters by the other students is not a challenging school. A school where some of the worst behaved kids are seen as an authority by the other students is.

You are bothered by little issues (like students not having pens). Teachers with no experience of the sharp end don’t understand the scale of a “little issue”. A child without a pen is not a major problem if there is only one such child and you don’t mind him working in pencil instead. What they don’t realise is that in a challenging class more than half the students will be without anything to write with (or too lazy to take their pens out of their bags if they do have them). Not only that but most of the ill-equipped students will arrive late, and aim to interrupt the teaching by shouting “I need a pen”. Often they will walk to the front of the class to demand something to write with or start going through the teacher’s desk drawers. They will start arguing if you give them pencils (“I can’t write in pencil”). If you are foolish enough to give them a pen they will take it to pieces and throw the pieces at others in the class. If you give them a pencil it cannot have a rubber on the end (that’s an eraser to any American readers) as they will bite it off and throw it at other students. If they return it at the end of the lesson it will be with the point broken off. Until you manage to come up with routines which minimise the amount of lending you will be handing out up to a hundred pencils in a week of which less than half will be returned in working order.

If kids are rude to you you must have done something wrong. This is my pet hate. Here are some of the things I’ve done to prompt verbal abuse by students:

Walked past them having never met them before.
Told them to stop fighting.
Asked them politely to do some work.
Taught their cousin.
Taken the register in a cover lesson.
Asked them to go to their lesson.

Politely asked them to leave my classroom as they are not in my class.
Suggest they stop climbing the wall.

Of course the usual prompt for verbal abuse is to enforce a school rule.

If you don’t like it you could just leave. Of course I can. Every teacher who wants children to learn can quit. Once the teaching profession is populated only by human sponges able to absorb any punishment and members of SMT unable to take responsibility for anything they do the problems in education will just go away. Alternatively we can and should fight to get the state of our schools recognised and order restored. Why should I give up my calling to teach just because there’s sod all teaching going on in so many schools?



  1. Amen. I am at a school where disrespect and abuse of the teachers is normal. When I read other teachers blogs I see that is different for them, which is one of the reasons I am either going to find a job at another school or I will be leaving the profession. Before I completely give up on teaching I want to try a different school. It makes me sad that others do not see the problem, and I am not sure how and if it will ever be fixed.

  2. IN Primary Schools, the problem appears as soon as children see a question that involves reading, i.e. inference in comprehension, (why did X act in this way? Give reasons for your answer …), and in Numeracy, (any word problem).

    Given the exhausting act of brainpower it takes to read a question in a test, some pupils like to miss them out entirely.

    With, “I don’t get it”. If you sit beside them while they read it, and lead them step by step, they often do.

    Its anything requiring independence of thought / skills.

  3. It can be very similar in secondary. “I don’t get it” often means “I can’t be bothered to read the question” even in students who have perfectly good literacy skills. Sometimes it even means “I can’t be bothered to find out which question it is”.

    In Key Stage 3 I have started refusing to give the page number for textbook work in order to force them to at least engage their brains enough to find the exercise before they get started:

    “Where’s Exercise 6B”
    “It’s in chapter 6. After Exercise 6A.”

    “Is this it?”

  4. Yes …

    and in response to “If you don’t like it you could just leave.”

    One of the best answers I’ve seen.

    Human sponges? Thought robots would be more appropriate.

    It is all my fault
    I must be useless

    I have to leave
    Beep (error /redo)
    Be retrained
    Beep (error /redo)

    Laugh, it confuses people.

  5. I think “I don’t get it” more often means “If I whinge I’ll get told the answer” ; we are currently teaching children to expect to be told the answers, not to do anything for themselves.

  6. Why should they do anything for themselves when grade-anxious teachers will desperately do it for them? We can’t MAKE them do anything and there are no sanctions for refusing.

  7. I think we all struggle with the attitudes of students and SMT alike. The trick is NOT to let it affect you. Life becomes a lot easier in schools if you can go around with a smile on your face and attempt to focus on the positives…after all, most kids are great.

    It seems rather self defeating to allow the misery of a few morons to determine your own mood.

    Who are the adults here?

  8. “The trick is NOT to let it affect you. Life becomes a lot easier in schools if you can go around with a smile on your face and attempt to focus on the positives…after all, most kids are great.”

    Thanks, I forgot to mention that one.

    That’s definitely one of the most unhelpful things you could ever say to somebody working in a stressful environment and only somebody who really didn’t get it could ever say it.

  9. While I suspect you do teach in a much more challenging environment that I do I’ve had my fair share of students tell me to f off and they are nine and ten. You make several great points, and I share your frustration with the “it’s not them it your teaching” mentality.

  10. Hey, I linked to you over at So You Want To Teach? in the 148th Carnival of Education but it didn’t trackback correctly. Sorry about that.

  11. Seemed to be okay on this end, thanks.

    There should be a link to your carnival on my blog roll (at least until the next carnival of education).

  12. In my 3rd grade class, I often can’t even count to ONE after saying, “begin your assignment” before there’s at least one hand up in the air asking about how to do number 1. It’s incredibly frustrating, because as the other poster said, if you walk them through it and ask key logical questions, they can sort it out. They’re just not willing to do that. And this is why I feel like I hardly get anything accomplished in a day, because I am unwilling to just GIVE them the answers, but talking them through the problems takes forever…

  13. In response to oldandrew. I do work in anextremely stressful comp. It appears the ones that do all of the moaning seem to be the people with negative, self-defeating behaviours as perfectly exhibited by your response.

    Hopefully you will be able to retire to france where everything is love and light in the near future. But please remember….you can’t run away from yourself!!!

    God bless.

  14. “I do work in anextremely stressful comp.”

    I’ve already done that one, it was second on my list.

    “It appears the ones that do all of the moaning seem to be the people with negative, self-defeating behaviours as perfectly exhibited by your response.”

    You’ve already done that one in your last post.

    “Hopefully you will be able to retire to france where everything is love and light in the near future.”

    I’ve done that one too. It was the last one on my list.

  15. sigh

    Please don’t feed the troll.

  16. But it’s fun.

  17. This all sound sooooo familiar.

  18. You mean you get your pencils back? I used to charge a dollar for a pencil, because I am quote not Wal-Mart, and still rarely got any back.

  19. Some kids would be too embarrassed to steal a pencil, in case they accidentally turned up to their next lesson with something to write with.

  20. I’m just dipping in to some of your earlier posts, and this is all so recognisable. The bit about the pens in particular read like my daily routine…

  21. I usually try to fortify myself with “soar with the eagles” but it is difficult when faced with so many layers frustration. Schools seem to becoming an “irony free zone” where nothing is too incredible or too silly to happen.

    I sell the student pens and books for 10 cents. I make a loss on the pens of 25 cents. I make a profit of 9 cents on the books. Everybody has 10 cents, or they can borrow it from a “friend”. Some kids seriously take advantage of the offer – they live pretty chaotic lives. Their parents are unlikely to buy them books and pens.

    I have also been reported to the principal by students who thought they would get me into trouble for “selling” things to students. I have also be accused by similar students of “grooming” them with favours.

    “Soar with the eagles.”

  22. “My school has challenging students too” has said so eloquently what I’ve been trying to explain for months. It’s about what the dominant ethos is in the school: in mine it’s a) School is a playground, b) I can say what I like to teachers, and c) Following instructions is entirely optional

    Of course SMT live with their heads so far in the clouds they honestly don’t believe this is the case.

  23. […] “I don’t get it” […]

  24. […] here is another example of Andrew’s negativity andclosed-mindedness. What would be more helpful, then? “Focus on the negatives! Let the buggers get you […]

    • It cost me my pension. I cried every night I came home – I thought it was my fault. It wasn’t. It was the school itself and its SMT. So don’t tell me I should have walked around pretending it wasn’t happening.

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